BENTON TOWNSHIP — It’s been 94 years since Southwest Michigan hasn’t had a J.C. Penney store.

That became the reality again Friday when J.C. Penney in The Orchards Mall closed after 40 years, and almost 95 in Benton Harbor when counting the old downtown store. The closure also took away the last anchor store at the mall.

Friday’s official closing was a melancholy affair.

Dodging omnipresent seagulls, people trickled in and out of the store looking for last minute deals. Some left empty-handed, while some backed up trucks to the store entrances to load up display racks and shelves.

An employee of the store, Kristine of Benton Harbor (who chose not to share her last name) was picking up some tables that had been used for displays.

“I’ve been here a long time. It’s been a really good place to work,” she said.

Kristine said the employees were offered the chance to transfer stores, though she chose not to take it. She said some of the employees have transferred.

“It’s very sad. We’re like a family in there,” she said. “Everybody that comes in seems to be sad we’re leaving.”

Rose Thomas was one of those sad customers. She stopped by the mall Friday with her daughter when they saw the large closing sign on the building.

“I just wanted to go in and take a look,” she said. “I was sad. When I came up to the door I wanted to cry because J.C. Penney has been with us a long time. It’s really sad to see it go.”

Thomas called Penney’s one of Benton Harbor’s finest stores.

Her daughter said when she was a teenager they would order things from the Penney’s catalog.

“We love that jewelry. Zales closed in the mall, too. That was a beautiful store. What are we going to have? Look at the birds. This is terrible,” she said. “It was a really fine store. I wish they could have stayed.”

Members of a family from Chicago who visit the area each summer were very surprised to see the store was closing. They said it’s somewhere they come every year.

Peggy Lemire of St. Joseph said she was picking something up in one of the other stores in the mall when she thought she’d stop into J.C. Penney on Friday.

Lemire said J.C. Penney was her go-to store and she patronized it once a month or so.

“I was so excited about it,” she said. “Before it came, there was no place to go shopping except South Bend, Holland or Kalamazoo.”

Lemire said she’s sad that it’s closing because she was so used to it being there.

“I’m just hoping they do something with the mall,” she said. “It’s just sitting here.”

J.C. Penney opened in downtown Benton Harbor in 1925. Back then the department store was spreading all across the nation during a period of explosive growth. It moved to Orchards Mall when the mall opened in 1979.

The mall opened with Penney’s and Sears as its main anchor stores. Sears closed in 2009.

The loss of Penney’s, announced in March, came a year after the mall lost Carson’s, originally Elder-Beerman, which had served as an anchor store since 1992.

The local J.C. Penney is one of 27 stores in 13 states being closed this year. The company has closed more than 200 under-performing stores since 2014 as the nation’s brick-and-mortar retailers continue to face a massive upheaval due to stiff competition from online competition.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman